Who: BA (hons) students of various disciplines
What: Students receive a project brief that challenges them to interpret an object from the museum’s collection in their chosen medium for Young People that will be considered for display at the museum. The students are then encouraged to further research and interpret individual objects and to develop their ideas and creative solutions as part of their independent studies and coursework.
Why: Develop the students skills, and provide exciting new ways of engaging young people with the museum collection.
Where: Royal Cornwall Museums
Annually, various University College Falmouth BA (hons) courses are offered the opportunity to work to a live brief interpreting the museum’s displayed collections for Young People aged 16-24. Third year Contemporary Crafts are the core course we work with each year. Other participating courses have included Spatial Design, Textile Design, Illustration and Photography. This year the project has expanded to include Choreography and Digital Animation.
Each course receives a lecture introducing the museum and the project to the students at their campus:
- Students receive a project brief that challenges them to interpret an object from the museum’s collection in their chosen medium for Young People that will be considered for display at the museum.
- They are given guidance on the characteristics of Young People audiences, based on consultations with this audience at RCM as well as studies by other museums and agencies seeking to better understand Young People’s interests and needs.
- Soon after, the students visit the museum for a tour of the collections, focusing on objects with stories that would likely appeal to Young People (though they are allowed free choice of any museum object).
- The students are then encouraged to further research and interpret individual objects and to develop their ideas and creative solutions as part of their independent studies and coursework.
Students then return to the museum for interim-project critiques at which they pitch their ideas to a panel of museum staff.
- Clarity is sought on the relevance of the proposed interpretations to both Young People and to the museum object that inspired it.
- Advice is also given on gallery installation considerations (including labels, display, interactivity, health and safety, lighting etc).
- Students develop their final products based on this feedback and display their final work at UCF.
- Museum staffs visit UCF and assess the works against the project brief to determine which will be displayed at the museum.
Following installation at the museum, the museum has accessioned one object each year into the Community Collection, awaiting consideration for inclusion in the museum’s permanent collections (e.g. Fig 1).
Fig 1: URBAN CLICHÉS - Inspired by 18th-19th century Staffordshire figurines and the British tradition of satirical cartoons, Allexis Weetman created a series of figurines looking at modern day youth culture and the darker side of life in Britain today as seen through the artist’s eyes and as portrayed in sensationalist tabloid newspapers.
During the last two years, Facebook has been used as an online platform for the project and is greatly valued by the students as a source of information and access to the collections as well as a platform for sharing ideas and inspiration and facilitating cross-disciplinary awareness.
This year, the tour has been replaced by smaller Revisiting Museum Collections  focus groups with hands on access to objects related specifically to sexual issues. This is part of the Revealing Collections project that will result in an exhibition at RCM in 2012. The exhibition will consist of interpretations by and for Young People of various backgrounds including UCF students of this year and next, community groups such as the YWCA and local secondary school children. Its partners include Exeter University and museums participating in the South West region’s ‘History and Sex’ project.
- to engage a new audience of Young People from HE with RCM
- to facilitate access to RCM collections as stimuli for creative work
- to produce contemporary issue-based interpretations that will engage local and tourist Young People
- to surprise museum visitors with unusual gallery interventions, rooted in the historical object of inspiration whilst representing Young People’s issues
- to provide professional exhibition opportunities for participants
- to provide professional development opportunities of working to a live brief within a museum and gallery context
- to create partnership between HE providers and RCM that will improve intellectual access to collections for HE students and visitors
- to refine RCM’s understanding of Young People audience interests
- to raise the profile of UCF with local and tourist Young People communities.
Results and outcomes
What worked well
This project developed out of the museum’s real need and desire to engage an underrepresented audience: Young People.
In 2006, RCM tried developing a programme of regular activities for local Young People through youth-led consultation, the overall failure of which revealed that to even achieve moderate attendance, there would need to be more investment of staff time and resources than the museum could afford. Even with such investment, that model was unsustainable in the long term as Renaissance funding was never going to last forever and the model was not tackling the fundamental problem revealed by the consultation: namely that there was nothing for Young People in the museum.
The Objects of Inspiration project was conceived as a practical solution that was sustainable for the period of Renaissance support and which would leave a legacy of interpretations of the collections that were specifically tailored by and for Young People, representing contemporary issues. It enabled the museum to practice community work that empowered its participants’ voices and opened up debate within the public arena of the museum.
Historically, museums and universities have been natural bedfellows. This relationship can take many guises. The focus of this particular partnership with UCF was engaging Young People, both in and out of formal education.
The primary participants in this project are university students who were developing interventions based on evidence of the characteristics of Young People audiences generally. It’s important not to presume that students are already engaged with museums: despite the history of affiliation between museums/galleries and arts practitioners, very few of the students engaged with museums, either in their leisure time or for their creative and professional development.
This project increased students’ awareness of this relationship and provided them with direct experience of museum-based work. Several retained their newfound relationship with the museum post-project and post-university, volunteering at the museum in order to further develop their experience of exhibition practices and gallery/museum-based learning.
The Contemporary Crafts course and the applied arts field more generally, is enhanced by the examination of museum objects, and a range of previously disregarded objects (curiously often by students) are newly valued through their interpretation, refreshed, re-valued and revealed as an extraordinarily useful resource. The ongoing project between the RCM and the Contemporary Crafts Course at University College Falmouth, has legitimized and woven the affiliation into the fabric of UCF’s ongoing curriculum and ethos.
In addition to the benefits already mentioned, RCM gained deeper understanding of local Young People’s interests through consultation. This revealed, amongst other things, that Transport may be the number one issue of Cornwall’s Youth Parliament, but interpretations (no matter how beautifully produced) focussing on boats were irrelevant to Young People’s lives “Who travels by boat today?!” (These can be seen in fig 2).
Fig 2: FOOL HARDY - Inspired by Staffordshire and Derby figurines, Demelza Whitley echoed the base of the Derby figurines and took dysfunctional transport as her theme.
The factors influencing their preferences have steered the students work and advice made by the Museum Panel each year. The project has also enabled the museum to address both historic and contemporary issues that its collections might not obviously relate to at first glance: for example, the Delftware Tulip Vase inspired ‘Slave Chain’ which highlighted the part slavery played in its creation (Figure 3);
Fig 3: SLAVE CHAIN - The Dutch prospered hugely from the slave trade during the 17th century. Remon Jephcott was inspired by the Delftware tulip vase to highlight this topic. She employed white tin glaze and blue cobalt, echoing that on the Delftware tulip vase. But, instead of the traditional Delftware designs, African images of the slave trade decorate the vases.
The Rialton Stone inspired ‘Bebo Bully’ which explored internet bullying (Figure 4).
Fig 4: BEBO BULLY - The commemorative writing on the Rialton Stone, shows the appearance of the Cornish language as a regional descendant of spoken British. This inspired Joanne Stambridge to create this sculpture by casting her teenage daughter’s back. She used modern text-language to explore the contemporary issue of internet bullying.
The students have produced some excellent pieces of work and, for many, this project steered the development of work for their final year shows. Some fantastic pieces were produced, and awards have been won (Figures 5 & 6).
Fig 5: HANDLE WITH CARE - Louise Batchelor was inspired by the ornate handle of the museum’s Staffordshire cup and saucer. Technical exploration with porcelain slip and glass casting translated the object into new materials. Louise won the Pearson’s Glass Student Award in 2008 and was a finalist for Bullseye Glass’ E:Merge competition Oregon USA in the same year. She has continued to exhibit since graduating in 2008, major shows include Beautifully Crafted at the National Glass Centre Sunderland 2009 and Unraveling the Manor House, Preston Manor Brighton 2010.
Fig 6: CONTEMPORARY CANOPICS –The Ancient Egyptians preserved mummies’ organs in canopic jars, each organ being protected by a different god. This inspired Lucy Foakes to create her modern versions featuring celebrities whose death related to a specific organ. These icons guard the jars‘ contents. Lucy won the BDC New Designer of the Year award in 2010 for this work.
What didn't work well
What we know about Young People, and the guidance we therefore give, has also been refined, but it could have been further refined with more consultation. Unfortunately there was not enough staff time to facilitate this.
At the outset of the project we had also hoped to support peer-peer teaching of skills and techniques by students to Young People not in HE. Again, coordinating this would have required more staff input than available, but it is something that could provide benefits, especially with regards exposing Young People not in HE education to further education and skills development.
RCM and UCF staff time plus RCM budget for activities, room hire, installations, display materials, exhibition expenses, marketing, object movement, photography, and web and pack design.
- The project brief needs to be tailored to each new course in close collaboration with HE staff and with sensitivity to the other course demands of the students. Relationships with tutors differ, as do their experiences of working with museums. This also applies to students. Rather than a one-fits-all approach, the focus needs to be facilitation of access to collections and the processes of museums. Communication and evaluation are crucial to refining the project regularly, both externally with tutors and students as well as internally.
- Projects such as these can expose gaps in processes and policies and even in ethos within an organisation. It is important to have clear support from senior management for new ways of working necessitated by attempting to engage new audiences in participatory ways. As a start it is important to find out what policies there are. For example, how are images and information about collections shared with the public to avoid breaches of security or copyright? Who owns the photographs taken by participants of museum objects or their products? If you are planning to accession objects into the collections, how will this affect collecting policies? Setting up agreements and procedures at the start can save problems later.
- Establishing direct communication with students rather than only via the HE institution is important too. It will facilitate further access to collections for individual students during the project, the completion and return of evaluations at the end of the project as well as the continuance of the museum-student relationship post-project and post-university. This could result in volunteer placements and is necessary should the museum retain any student products, either temporarily or permanently.
- If using Facebook as a platform it is important to provide assistance to those who are unfamiliar with it in order to support access to the resources available on the site. If students do not wish to become part of Facebook, aliases can be created. Also, it is important to not simply use it as a showcase at the end of the project. It functions much better if set up from the start as a platform for sharing creative inspirations, artists, practices and discussions of the issues. Handing as much ownership of the site to Young People as possible is important too, though you need to be realistic about how much more students will do than what their course demands of them. At RCM, we have been fortunate to have a UCF student and local graduate volunteering at the museum and heavily involved in the Facebook group for the latest version of the project.
"This exhibition represents an important step forward for both the museum and the college. The students benefit from being able to display their work in an environment that is synonymous with great works of art and the museum benefits by introducing new modes of presentation, attracting young audiences and looking to the future. This kind of collaboration is vital for Cornwall and I look forward to similar partnership projects taking place in the future." Professor Alan Livingstone, Principal of University College Falmouth (during the first year of the project.)
"It’s certainly made me much more aware of what is in the museum."
"I learnt new making skills and how to aim my work at different audiences."
"It was very interesting to analyse and study museum pieces."
"The best part of the project was discovering what was in the collections and interpreting these discoveries in my own way, through this I learnt a lot about the history of the pieces displayed."
"I learnt about Cornish History, which was very interesting and something I sadly don’t get to hear/see much of, even though I live here!"
‘Thanks to this project I explored new ceramic techniques and the work of many artists who were previously unknown to me."
"The best part of the project for me was working towards a project where our work has now been publicly displayed in an external place to the university."
"After I graduate this July, work experience/ job/ an internship within a museum or art gallery is an area I am interested in getting involved with."
Name: Louise Mcdermott
Name of organisation: Royal Cornwall Museum